Thursday, 30 August 2012

I Love Lucie

Florence was the first of my feline companions; arriving on the scene some 18 years back; a tiny black ball of fluff with long whiskers, a white tummy and toes. From the very start she commandeered the entire household, capitalising upon our devotion to her and dictating to us all at her whim. Her son Freddie arrived the following year and she bullied him just as she did the rest of us.

Freddie was an adorable, loving Tabby, totally subservient to Florence despite being twice her size.  Once Florence spied Freddie  sleeping peacefully on the sofa, she would stalk silently along the sofa back and then spring upon him, biffing him so that he woke startled, retreating hurriedly, thus vacating a warm hollow into which Florence would curl up, purring happily at another victory and then sleep.

Sketch of Freddie Sleeping

Dinnertime was another opportunity for Florence to assert her position as head of the household. At roughly the same time every evening two plates of food were presented to Florence and Freddie. Freddie would sit, waiting hesitantly to see which plate Florence was partaking from, before tentatively moving forward to take a bite from the other plate. Florence with one eye fixed on Freddie would gulp down a mouthful from the first plate and then just as he was about to begin eating, push him unceremoniously aside and imperiously demolish the food upon the second plate, leaving Freddie to eat from her plate. This ritual continued in the same manner on a daily basis. 

Sketch of Freddie peering timidly from beneath the rug - watching for Florence 

Lucie came into my life eight years ago - a pathetic scared little scrap of smoky grey fur squawking like a baby banshee from behind my neighbour's hedge. She belonged to my neighbour and technically still does, but this is a fact that has never seemed to bother her and she has persisted unwaveringly with her belief that her rightful home is with me. Florence, as could be expected took great exception to Lucie's arrival and made her indignation known through throwing many hissy fits. Freddie resigned himself to the presence of another female in his life with meek acceptance.

Sadly and causing many tears to be shed, Florence died in 2010. Freddie was heartbroken without her and sat in the garden on the bench near where she was buried and cried for hours, refusing to come indoors. He died three months later. I cried for days!

Lucie had always been mindful that she did not really belong, however with the absence of both Florence and Freddie she now felt that she had earned her right to belong with me and has become increasingly more possessive, demanding all my attention and affection.

Lucie in Bed

Although she is as cute as a button, Lucie does possess some rather unpleasant traits. With the exception of me and my neighbour she is extremely nervous of every human (especially of the male variety)! If she doesn't flee in panic when approached by anyone else, Lucie is apt to develop a serious attack of flatulence; which due to her rich and varied diet of frogs, mice and in the past most lamentably - birds, can be extremely revolting. Her breath too tends to be on the mousey side and certainly not the most wholesome.

Florence and Freddie were both avid bird watchers and would sit for hours engrossed, uttering silent meows, their little chins and whiskers quivering in excitement as they sat at the French windows staring in fascination at the frenzy of feeding birds in the laburnum tree in the garden. However the fascination with the birds stopped there for them. Freddie was too daunted and intimidated by the fact that birds could actually move to pursue his interest any further, and Florence's preference was for the bird variety of chicken, freshly roasted from the oven.

Much to my distress, since she was a very tiny cat Lucie proved herself to be an expert hunter and killer. I have seen her skulking low to the ground, and then lie motionless watching a flock of starlings feeding on the grass before quick as lightening darting at them and seizing her chosen prey by the neck amidst the frantic warning squawking of the other birds. It is for this reason that Lucie's presence is now announced by the jingling of the bell she wears around her neck.

Lucie In The Garden

I am inclined to believe that Lucie has French origins as she shows a most remarked penchant for frogs legs and I have had the dubious privilege of being presented with a gift from her of a live frog with one leg already consumed. Judging by her excited high pitched cries when she deposited the poor creature at my feet in the kitchen she appeared to be labouring under the misapprehension that I wanted to partake of the other leg.

That particular gift created less havoc than when on my return from a short break away I discovered her present of a dead mouse in the toe of my slipper! As I had been wearing the slippers for a while and was becoming irritated with the lump in the sole - the fact of putting my hand in and making the discovery of the dead furry body of a mouse, that I had inadvertently been stroking with my toes, brought me to the very brink of hysteria!  

Lucie content upon the rug

However she is a little sweetheart and demonstrates real affection towards me, putting her head on my shoulder and nuzzling into me as though she were still a kitten, preferring the times when it is just me and her with no one else around to disturb her equilibrium.

Lucie enjoying the evening sun through the window

There is though still one thorn in her side - that of a rather impressive black and white cat with a nonchalant swagger whom I have christened Percy, short for "persistent". 

Percy lurking beneath the armoire

Percy has a home (not mine) where he is quite comfortable, but he perceives his domain to include other houses aside from his main residence. To this end he patrols all the homes within the vicinity of his patch, appearing suddenly out of nowhere in kitchens and upon sofas, expecting to receive food and respect upon demand. Refusing to accept that he isn't entitled to either, Percy persistently returns, finding his way through any unwittingly open door or window - compelling those of us whom he views as his subjects to submit to his demands and even occasionally offering us the privilege of stroking him for a brief few moments. 

Percy pays no heed to Lucie or other felines in residence at his other destinations who may feel resentful about his intrusion, but views them as inconsequential; of no significance; unworthy of his attention. Instead he takes great delight in deliberately teasing a neighbouring Labrador by sitting ever so slightly out of his reach upon the roof of his dog box whilst slowly performing his ablutions - driving the dog delirious with rage and laughing behind his whiskers when the dog receives a resounding telling off for disturbing the peace by his owner! 

Friday, 24 August 2012

Harvesting The Herbs

The arrival of August heralds a flurry of activity at the allotment. Each day there is something to be picked or harvested, (or eaten immediately!). The fruit has ripened and branches and canes are weighed down with luscious produce bursting with goodness.

The herbs are reaching maturity and now that the rain has abated temporarily and the sun has made an appearance it is time to harvest. The best time to gather the herbs is in the early morning, when the sparkling dew drops have evaporated and before the sun is too hot. Entering through the gate into the plot from Sweet Pea Lane, the heady sweet and pungent aromas of sweet peas, roses, lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, lemon balm and mints mingle in the air tantalisingly captivating the senses.

Apple-blossom scented Chamomile

Chamomile with its delicious apple blossom scent is one of my favourite herbs. All through the summer I have been busy gathering the flowers and have pressed them so that they can be used to decorate the soaps in the Flower Garden Gift Box. The dried chamomile flowers are used along with lavender flowers and rose petals to make up my Relaxing Herbal bath soaks which are wonderful for relieving stress and tension and inducing a restful sleep. 

Relaxing Herbal Bath Soaks

As chamomile helps to soothe skin and reduce inflammation, I infuse the flowers in oil which I then add to some of the soap blends. Occasionally I will also add dried ground petals to the soap base to give texture.

Lavender Hidcote in the foreground; Yarrow, Mint and Sage with Comfrey to the back.

The Lavender has been picked continuously during the growing season and hung up in bunches to dry, the scent pervading throughout the workshop and kitchen where it is hanging up; evoking visions of sun drenched Lavender fields in Provence. Once the sprigs of the blue grey Lavender Angustafolia have dried, the buds will be used in the bath soaks or to fill handmade herbal hearts and sachets; whilst the deeper blue Lavender Angustafolia Hidcote flowers will be used to decorate the soaps. 

Vivid jewel-like Calendula

Calendula is a healing herb that can be used to heal wounds and soothe skin. I have been harvesting the Calendula flowers throughout the flowering season. Some of the flowers are infused fresh in oil and the rest are spread out on muslin covered frames to dry. The oil can then be incorporated in the base mix of herbal balms or creams. Infused in oil or water the Calendula is a natural colourant that I use in the soap (such as the Mediterranean Citrus soap) to produce a yellow shade. The dried petals look pretty added to the soap mixture.

The more that the flowers are picked, the more flowers are produced. However once the petals fall, the seeds form and when brown and dry on the stem they are ready to be collected to be stored for re-sowing the following Spring.

Marjoram with its warm leafy scent, Bee Balm and Fennel

Bee Balm

I love the Bee Balm with its gorgeous showy, spiky, shocking pink flowers. A splash of vibrant colour amongst the herb beds, it is also known as Bergamot or Scarlet Monarda. The profusion of flowers looks so beautiful that I have to force myself to harvest it, but thankfully as a member of the mint family Bee Balm is quite rampant which means there is plenty of it - so I can gather sufficient whilst still leaving enough for the bees to enjoy.

Bee Balm infusing in Olive Oil

The freshly harvested leaves and flowers are placed into a jar and infused completely with Olive Oil. I will be using some of the oil to make a nourishing Bee Balm cream.

Gorgeous fragile star-shaped blue petals of the Borage flowers

Borage is a magical companion plant; bees and butterflies love it, as do strawberries and runner beans. The fresh herb is rich in sap and when pulped or squeezed yields juice that is excellent for skin cleansing and removing impurities from clogged pores.

My handmade woven willow trug overflows with armfuls of Borage, Bee Balm, Marjoram and Calendula

Bunches of voracious but invigoratingly fragrant Mint, citrusy Lemon Balm and herbaceous woody smelling Sage and Rosemary are gathered by the armful to hang up and dry. The herbs are divided into small bunches, fastened together with a rubber band and hung upside down until they are dry. These will be added with other dried herbs to herbal sachets; ideal for hanging up in wardrobes to keep moths at bay.

The herbs are brought home to prepare for drying and infusing

Bee Balm, Lavender, Chamomile and Heartsease flowers collected to dry or press which will be used to decorate the soaps and handmade boxes.

Herbal Oil mix infusing for my Sea Garden Soap

Herbs grown intentionally at the allotment are not the only ones that I harvest for the soap. Horsetail grows prolifically through the plot and has been a constant battle for me since the beginning.

Horsetail pushing cheekily through the Nasturtiums

However much and however hard that I dig, it refuses to be eradicated. I scoured the internet looking for advice but to no real avail. Nonetheless I did make an interesting discovery; horsetail is actually valued for its health benefits!

Horsetail contains minerals including Silica which it absorbs from the earth and helps to rejuvenate hair, nails and skin; healing wounds, rashes, burns and acne. Silica helps to form collagen which strengthens the skin and helps restore skin elasticity, thus helping with the battle against anti-aging.

Equipped with this new found knowledge, I have been eagerly harvesting the sterile green shoots, drying them and making infusions both in oil and water some of which shall be turned into salves and hair rinses and some added to various soap mixes. 


Chickweed grows happily in abundance at the lower end of the plot and if not curtailed will enthusiastically drape and entwine itself around my beetroot, onions and leeks. However weeding can be carried out in conjunction with harvesting as Chickweed has properties which help to heal and soothe irritated skin, also relieving the itching caused by eczema and psoriasis; making it another useful plant to infuse for soap making purposes.

Nettles jostling with Nasturtiums and Horsetail along the boundary fence

Nettles too are very much at home at the bottom of the plot below the Hawthorn hedge, (with an odd sneaky one peeping through the nasturtiums along the fence bordering the plots). I don't hold them in the same aversion now that I did when I was a child and was forever experiencing the prickly, burning sensation  of getting stung. The tips of the young nettles make a delectable soup, full of nutritional value. (I do make sure however that I am wearing gloves when gathering them!) When used externally, nettles have anti-inflammatory properties that can be most helpful for irritated skin or skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

With all that these plants have to offer in the way of beneficial properties, and so that their unexpected appearance on the plot can be justified, it is my view that they should not just be discarded as nuisance weeds, but are instead put to good use. I think it is therefore most appropriate that I combine all these uninvited herbs - horsetail, chickweed and nettle to add to my Gardeners Herbal soap mix, which will help to soothe and repair the work worn hands of us gardeners.

Gardeners Herbal Soap

Growing and harvesting the herbs is an extremely pleasurable task - stimulating the senses and drawing me back to Nature. Including herbs and flowers that I have grown and gathered from the allotment, garden and hedgerow in the soap making process enriches the whole experience and results in a beautiful handmade herbal soap with therapeutic properties which for me is a delight to both display and to use.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Sun, Sea, Sand & Shells

Come walk with me beside the sea

Where dusk sits on the land,

And search with me,

For shells are free

And treasures hide in the sand.

Aside from the allotment my other most favourite place to be is beside the sea. On a sunny day, if time is short, the beach on the shore of the lough provides an unexpected coastal retreat from the City.

Snatching a spare half an hour to sit and watch the waves.

However on a glorious day, when time is not of an essence, the closest thing to paradise is to walk through the area that the wild ponies graze,

escaping to the beach along the coast that is a designated nature reserve

and lay amongst the sand dunes, savouring the expanse of sand, sea and blue sky and the smell of salt and seaweed on the light sea breeze. Relishing the silence save for the background sounds of the mournful cries of seagulls circling overhead and the sea moving ceaselessly as though it were inhaling and exhaling.

The sea air smells fresh and clean.

The sun sparkles on the tops of the waves as their white crests tumble and roll then spill, swirling gently across the sand, washing away the footprints and leaving the beach pure and unspoiled. 

Whenever I am by the sea, I cannot resist the enchantment of searching for treasure along the shore; whether it be a special shell, or sun-bleached driftwood of all shapes and sizes or a piece of coloured glass or pottery with the edges smoothed by waves tossing it relentlessly against the sand.

The memories of my time spent by the sea are captured through these treasures as they later become incorporated into my handmade creations.

Such as my shell and driftwood wind chimes

My handmade Sea Garden Soap (Jardin de la Mer)

Boxed Sea Garden Soap

My handmade Sea Garden Soap captures the essence of the ocean; containing mineral rich kelp, sand to help with exfoliation and Lavender, Rosemary, Peppermint and Eucalyptus Essential Oils and is decorated with lace, natural jute string, along with a small piece of driftwood and a shell that have been discovered during one of my seaside treasure quests.

As I leave the beach and return back through the area with the wild ponies, butterflies and dune flowers, I feel refreshed and rejuvenated. I have shells in my pocket and sand in my shoes.....

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Allotmenteers

Taking on an allotment is not just about working a plot. It is about becoming part of a community. We allotmenteers are an eclectic bunch with words of advice, growing tips and anecdotes handed out freely along with cups of tea, surplus seeds, seedlings and samples of produce.

Let me introduce you to some of our little community.

First there is The Captain who despite his advanced years and physical limitations puts many of the younger more able-bodied plot holders to shame. With his wickedly droll sense of humour and two artificial hips The Captain manages his entire award winning plot on his hands and knees. Formerly in the Navy he still meticulously takes readings of the daily rainfall and other meteorological events, recording them in his log.

Opposite the entrance to The Captains plot, on the corner of the lane christened The Mall and the area called "Free Speech Corner" is the plot belonging to The Builder. 

Irrepressible and fun loving, The Builder incorporates his skill at floral art into his allotment.

Old clematis montana stems woven into an unconventional scarecrow   

Further along the lane is the plot belonging to The Quiet Ones; a very sweet, friendly couple who do not let the necessity of communicating through alternative methods prevent them from passing on their wealth of crop growing experience and being a welcome part of our little community. 

Their plot is exemplary with produce in abundance; a quirky scarecrow and scarcely a weed in sight.

Other members of our little community of fifty-three plot holders includes;

The Professor whose painstaking method of diligently weighing his potatoes, counting out his seed before planting and measuring the precise distance between his crops rewards him with an outstanding harvest of superb quality and the first prize at this years award ceremony.

His sweetcorn are second to none and the envy of all!

The Pearly Queen - a fellow vegetarian and conservationist and with whom I discovered a previous connection. (The clue is in the name!) 

Whilst she was away  - the rabbit did play! (look closely at the bottom left amongst the grass)

Then there is The Civil Servant, winner of the best allotment last year; formerly the chairman of our allotment committee, but who tendered his resignation following a differing of opinion with the council. 

Thus follows The Reluctant Chairman who took over from The Civil Servant.

The Daffodil man whose passion is for growing daffodils and whose plot contains nothing but daffodils.

The Newcomers have already begun to make the plot their own, with woven willow and hazel structures acting as rustic supports.

At the top of Sweet Pea Lane is The Bee-man who with ten hives is somewhat of an expert on honey bees. 

(The above photo is not his allotment, but another location where he also keeps his bees)

The Woodsman - whose plot is a fascinating thicket of fruit trees, hazel and willow, with crops grown haphazardly underneath and around the trees with a greenhouse nestling in amongst them all.

The Reverend - whose ministries often take him overseas and so whose plot is governed by nature.

My neighbouring plot holder - whose tasty raspberries I partook of upon my arrival at the allotments, is the gregarious, generous and popular Paddy (short for Paddington), as just like my childhood favourite - the adorable little bear, he too emanated from the shores of Peru. 

A wonderful living willow chair at the highest point of his plot provides a comfortable vantage point.

My other neighbouring plot holder is Mr Production. He has no time nor space on his plot to waste on frivolous flowers (unlike me - as I seem to spend more of my time on my flowers than on my veg!),

but his produce would rival the most superior of supermarkets. (Although actually I stand corrected. Three stray Hollyhocks of a most enviable colour stand smugly in the top corner of the plot.)

The Postman at 89 years old is our oldest plot holder and has been at the allotments the longest. His plot  is as an allotment should be.

I of course am The Soap Lady and am known for using the herbs I grow at the plot to make soap.

However after being caught photographing the other plots I will probably now be known as The Nosey Parker!